Friday, 8 February 2013

Being our own spin-doctor: the ways we avoid seeing the truth

2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2
Since, then, we have such a hope, we act with great boldness, not like Moses, who put a veil over his face to keep the people of Israel from gazing at the end of the glory that was being set aside. But their minds were hardened. Indeed, to this very day, when they hear the reading of the old covenant, that same veil is still there, since only in Christ is it set aside. Indeed, to this very day whenever Moses is read, a veil lies over their minds; but when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.

Therefore, since it is by God’s mercy that we are engaged in this ministry, we do not lose heart. We have renounced the shameful things that one hides; we refuse to practise cunning or to falsify God’s word; but by the open statement of the truth we commend ourselves to the conscience of everyone in the sight of God.

Being a Spin-Doctor
Spin is a wonderful tool in the world of journalism. A professional genealogical researcher discovered that ex-president of the USA George W. Bush's great-great uncle, Thomas Bush, was hanged for horse stealing and train robbery in Montana in 1889. The only known photograph of Thomas shows him standing on the gallows.

On the back of the picture is this inscription: "Thomas Bush; horse thief, sent to Montana Territorial Prison 1885, escaped 1887, robbed the Montana Flyer six times, caught by Pinkerton Detectives, convicted and hanged in 1889." A lady e-mailed the White House for comments. George's staff of professional image adjusters sent back the following biographical sketch:

"Thomas was a famous cowboy in the Montana Territory. His business empire grew to include acquisition of valuable equestrian assets and intimate dealings with the Montana railroad. Beginning in 1883, he devoted several years of his life to service at a government facility, finally taking leave to resume his dealings with the railroad. In 1887, he was a key player in a vital investigation run by the renowned Pinkerton Detective Agency. In 1889, Thomas passed away during an important civic function held in his honour when the platform upon which he was standing collapsed.
The ‘truth’ can be doctored very easily in order that it says what we want it to say rather than what is really truth. Now the above story may or may not be true, but it’s a great story. The difficulty I think we face is that we are forever filtering the truth through our own lenses, not being aware of the distortion we’ve introduced. We are unconsciously very good spin doctors.

Have you ever sat in a room with people, trying to sort out or mediate a difficult situation, and asked yourself, ‘What am I missing here?’ Or have you ever watched someone having an argument with someone else and thought, ‘Why can you not see yourself in the same way that others, that I, can see you?’ And then, then if you’re feeling really screwy you start to ask yourself, ‘Hang on, am I seeing you that way because my vision is somehow mucked up?’

None of us sees the world as it is, not as it truly is. We only ever see our version of events, from our own perspective, through the ‘glasses’ that we’re wearing. But that is not to say that the truth isn’t accessible, only that in order to see it, we first have to see what it is that’s getting in the way of the truth. What is it about our own story that distorts the other stories we’re taking part in?  How is it that someone who is almost universally loved can be filled with self-loathing whilst someone can be so full of themselves that they fail to see what people really think about them? 

This is the kind of imagery that St. Paul is playing with in this portion of his second letter to the church in Corinth. He begins by citing an example from the Old Testament, of how the face of Moses shone with the glory of God when he came down from Mount Sinai with the two stone tablets on which was written the ten commandments.  Moses wasn’t aware of this unusual side-effect of being in God’s direct presence, but for the Israelites it was disturbing. The story in Exodus makes it plain that they were afraid to come near him when he was like this. Moses’ response was to leave his face uncovered until he had finished telling them what God had said, then he would put on a veil over his face.

In essence St. Paul seems to be saying that the Israelites didn’t want to see God’s glory. They were afraid of it. The veil hid it from their eyes. Perhaps we might say that the truth was too bright to look upon. And that’s what truth is like - it’s bright, and sometimes uncomfortably piercing, and maybe that’s why we veil it in our own alternative truths, so that we don’t have to face up to anything uncomfortable.  Or sometimes we don’t want to see the truth because we have already made up our own mind about it, in essence we have veiled our deepest self from the reality as God sees it for the sake of an easier to swallow reality that we feel more comfortable with.

Truth is hard to bear. Truth can hurt. But truth can also heal. I sometimes wonder about our own patron saint, Mary Magdalene. The story is that Jesus cast seven demons out of her, but what does that mean? Maybe it was literal demons, or maybe it was the kind of inner-demons that keep us awake all night, worrying about what people think about us, or the kind of self-loathing that so many in our society suffer with.  We don’t know what Mary Magdalene went through, but I wonder whether her healing was simply that Jesus showed her what she looked like through his eyes, through the eyes of God. Maybe what happened was that he allowed her to see herself as God saw her. Maybe, just maybe, when the veil was lifted and she saw the truth it was like a gentle, healing light which cleansed her soul from the lies she had told herself about what she was like.  We don’t know. All that we can know for certain is that it is much harder to see the real truth than we like to believe. St. Paul’s example of veiling is that of Jesus’s own people not being able to see him for who he is, but then he gives us a route by which we truly can see things as they are when he says these words:
“...but when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed.”
Now I believe that to be true with all my heart. The trouble is, so do many other groups within Christianity who differ in belief from me substantially! As I’ve got older and, I hope, grown in my relationship with God, so I’ve found myself believing that God’s values may well be different from my own. He seems to be far more concerned with people receiving justice than he is about, say, their sexual relationships. Certainly the weight of scripture bears that one out in terms of the number of references to justice.  It feels to me as if the Lord has begun to remove the veil I put on in my adolescence which puts huge weight on the rightness or wrongness of various kinds of relationship and has instead directed my gaze at how unfairly some people are treated by their own state or by another country.  Yet I have sisters and brothers who proclaim the same faith who have no problem with the idea that God may use their nation to beat down another, yet will scream and shout about how God comes in judgement on anyone who is having sex outside a married relationship with the intent of having children. To me that seems all wrong, but to them I expect I seem all wrong.

This came up again only this last week with the news that in the US, information was sent out to musicians and singers at an awards event about what was permissible for them to wear, and that breasts must be covered at all times. This from the nation which produces some of the most violent and exploitative television in the world and allows people to carry assault rifles! Which veil are they looking through?

Yet it begs the question, if Jesus lifts the veil of truth, how come we all disagree so much with each other? That’s a question to which I really wish I had the right answer. I hold the views I have about faith, different religions, the value of science, human sexuality and so on because I believe that the Lord has been steadily lifting the veil for me since we began our journey together. And if I’m honest I have to recognise the likelihood that a decade from now those views will have continued to evolve as he continues to lift the veil.  And recognising that point, that our views could and should change, is perhaps the most important step in all of this. What you believe now, about God, about yourself, about other people, could and should change; that is the mark of a living faith, that your beliefs don’t stagnate. Recognising that particular truth is what instils a kind of humility in us, because it drives us to say:
“This is what I believe the Lord has unveiled for me - but I might be wrong. There may be more.”
‘I might be wrong.’ When was the last time any of us owned up to that truth. ‘I might be wrong.’ You see it is only when we admit that to ourselves that the Lord can begin to lift a veil for us.

So the questions we should perhaps think about asking ourselves are these:

How much of a spindoctor am I about myself?
How much of my own spin have I come to actually believe to be truth?
When I declare either good things or bad things to myself about my soul, am I prepared to accept that I might be wrong?
When I declare theological truths to be certain, do I have the humility to accept I might be mistaken?

We are living in uncertain times. I think that’s one of the reasons why people have moved towards more conservative or fundamentalist positions since it is much more comforting to adopt an absolutist position that can’t be challenged. Essentially we fall back on the weak argument, ‘I’m a proper Christian and you’re not so I’m right and you’re wrong.’  But we aren’t called to that. The Lord is my rock on whom I wish to build, but the humble truth is I can’t always see the foundations clearly, and sometimes I’m mistaken about them. We should allow our life experiences and the beliefs of others to challenge our own presumptions. If we are correct, then our beliefs can cope with being challenged. Each of us needs to approach the Lord ourselves with a prayer something like this:
Lord, I want to see clearly. Please show me.
‘Show us the Father’, said the disciple to Jesus, and Jesus responded, ‘If you have seen me, you have seen the Father.’ Show us the truth.  Let us see it clearly in you as, day by day, you lift the veils in our lives.

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